The Rise of the Gothic Novel

New post for Wordsworth Editions Blog…

During the Renaissance, ‘gothic’ was a label for all things barbarous. To European Humanist intellectuals, there were two epochs of cultural excellence in human history: the Classical and their own. These were separated by a terrible period of ignorance and brutality – the Dark and Middle Ages – brought about by the Goths, the Germanic tribes that had brought down the Roman Empire. François Rabelais first applied the term to literature in the sixteenth century, meaning anything that failed to reflect Classical ideals and scholarship, and which was therefore vulgar. When Horace Walpole appended ‘A gothic story’ to the title of his influential 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto (referring to its medieval setting) – a tale of intrigue and murder prefaced by an ominous prophecy – the gothic romance was effectively born.

Originally presented as the translation of a sixteenth century Italian manuscript, Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford and a Whig MP, explained his project in a preface to the second edition, writing that ‘It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success’ (Walpole: 1984, 43). This synergy of naturalism and romance signalled a current debate in literature as to whether the relatively new art of prose fiction should reflect real life or the imagination. The Castle of Otranto was followed by The Old English Baron by Clara Reeve in 1778, which the author described as ‘the literary offspring of The Castle of Otranto’ in a preface (Reeve: 1883, iii).

Influenced by Voltaire, the next notable English gothic novel was originally written in French. Vathek was a bit of fun by the art collector William Beckford, penned in 1782 (when he was twenty-one) and translated by the clergyman Samuel Henley in 1786 as An Arabian Tale, From an Unpublished Manuscript. Reflecting the then fashion for Orientalism in art and design, Vathek eschewed the medieval settings of Walpole and Reeve and was instead set in the eighth century Abbasid Caliphate. In the novel, the Caliph Vathek renounces Islam and embarks on an occult path of violence and debauchery – often in the company of his mother – intended to gain him mystical powers. Vathek and his entourage eventually arrive at the Halls of Eblis, the Islamic hell, but for attempting to transgress the boundaries of human knowledge prescribed by God, they are damned to wander the halls endlessly and silently, their hearts burning with eternal fire. The gothic novel had arrived, with wild settings, sexually magnetic antiheroes and supernatural (or apparently supernatural) events intended to evoke a sublime terror in its readers, perfectly suiting the rebellious sensibility of late-eighteenth century Romanticism.

With its preoccupation with physical violence and extreme emotional states – obsession, anxiety, paranoia, guilt and fear – gothic fiction allowed for the exploration of the dark, irrational and extreme elements of thought and experience. As Rosemary Jackson wrote, ‘It is all that is not said, all that is unsayable, through realistic forms’ (Jackson: 1981, 26). Sometimes these stories allowed for a natural explanation, a happy ending even, and sometimes they did not. The form thus reflected the anxieties and vulnerabilities of a culture in upheaval, as well as the hope – the English still reeling from the American and French Revolutions and coming to terms with industrialisation. Epistemological paradigms therefore collided in gothic fiction, with the old worldview of the superstitious (Catholic, European) Middle Ages – where and when the majority of the stories were set – appearing to haunt Enlightenment (Protestant, English) reason. This is why gothic fiction is fascinated by doppelgängers and nightmares, of Self versus Other and monsters from the id. The archaic setting at once contained the barbarous past and reminded readers that it was not so far away or, worse, still carried inside; not dead but sleepeth. The fragile trappings of the so-called civilised world therefore offered little protection, despite the protestations of Henry Tilney in Austen’s satire of the gothic novel, Northanger Abbey: ‘Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians’ (Austen: 1988, 199).

The two primary exponents of gothic fiction in England were Ann Radcliffe (1764 – 1823) and Matthew ‘Monk’ Lewis (1775 – 1818). Their work was at once similar and totally different, and these divergent approaches illustrate the conceptual split in the gothic as a literary genre. In short, it was a question of suspense versus horror…

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